The Terrorist Next Door
Photo by AP/Wide WorldKhalil Deek is either one of the world's most dangerous men —a close friend of terrorist financier Osama bin Laden—or a naive computer geek whose religious beliefs and social connections led overzealous authorities to mistake him for an Islamic terrorist.
Only this much seems certain about Deek, an erstwhile computer engineer who used to live in Orange County: on Dec. 11, 1999, Pakistani police arrested him at his home in Peshawar and put him on an airplane to Amman, Jordan. They were acting on orders from Jordanian King Abdullah II, whose government had information tying Deek to several men just arrested for their alleged role in a plot to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists in that country over the New Year's holiday.
One of the group's alleged bombing targets was Amman's Radisson Hotel. Allegedly masterminded by Osama bin Laden, the attack never materialized, and as it turned out, not a single terrorist incident occurred on Dec. 31, 1999.
A few days after he was arrested and extradited to Jordan, Deek—the only U.S. citizen arrested in the case—and more than a dozen other defendants were indicted in a Jordanian courtroom.
Judging by the international media's response to the story, the evidence proving Deek's terrorist connections is solid. Pakistani authorities found "bomb-making instructions" on his computer; they say he met on several occasions with the infamous bin Laden at the latter man's hideout across the border in Afghanistan. According to numerous newspaper accounts, moreover, Deek was until the time of his arrest a "top deputy" for bin Laden's terrorist network.
Yet seven months after his arrest, Jordanian and U.S. authorities now say Deek actually served as a sinister travel agent for bin Laden's group. And the "evidence" against him increasingly seems to revolve around what police found on his computer in Peshawar: the radical Islamic book Encyclopedia Jihad, a sort of Muslim Anarchist's Cookbook that is widely and publicly available in the Middle East and in Pakistan.
From his jail cell in Jordan, Deek maintains his innocence and has even reportedly helped his captors decipher computer disks that contain evidence relating to bin Laden's would-be New Year's Eve attack. To make matters more confusing, the Jordanian government in March transferred Deek from a maximum-security prison in Amman to a low-security jail—a strange place to put a dangerous terrorist. The Jordanian government won't explain the transfer, except to insist that Deek is still officially under investigation.
Neither the FBI nor the Jordanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., would comment for this story. But in its May 2000 annual report, the U.S. State Department's office of counterterrorism cited Deek's extradition to Jordan as evidence of Pakistan's cooperation in fighting terrorism. The State Department refused to comment on Deek's situation, except for one official who asked not to be identified by name: "We cooperate closely with the government of Jordan, and we strongly applauded the way they handled this," he said.
On a crowded street just a few blocks north of the rusting railroad tracks that bisect Anaheim from east to west is the beige, one-story apartment building where Khalil Deek used to live. On a recent afternoon, the building was empty except for a young girl's banana-seat bicycle, which sat abandoned in the corner of the building's concrete courtyard. Outside on the sidewalk, children played under the gaze of watchful mothers.
Deek's brother, Tawfiq, a chemical engineer who works in Brea, still lives in the building with his wife, Malak, in a modest apartment on the first floor. In recent interviews, both Tawfiq and Malak told the Weekly that Deek is not the man Jordanian and U.S. officials say he is. They tell a life story of someone who doesn't seem to fit the stereotype of a radical Islamic terrorist.
According to his family, Deek was born 42 years ago in a small Palestinian village in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. After finishing high school in 1977, Deek studied chemical engineering at Egypt's Aswan University and traveled to Rome, where he attended a small computer school. After returning to Jordan, Deek found a job with a French company helping to design walls for Alia Airport in Jordan, which was then under construction.
Perhaps inspired by that work, Deek moved in 1980 to Greeley, Colorado, to pursue a commercial pilot's license. When he ran out of money before he could finish the program, Deek apparently settled for a private pilot's license and moved to Denton, Texas, where a Palestinian friend ran a liquor store. In Texas, Deek's interest in airplanes waned in favor of computers. Once again, he attended computer classes. To make ends meet, he found work as a pizza-delivery man.
Deek married and shortly after, in 1985, divorced. A year later, just after finishing computer school, Deek moved to Anaheim. His Palestinian friend had already moved here, and Deek followed him, finding work as a computer programmer. Two years later, Tawfiq emigrated to the United States and became Khalil's next-door neighbor. The two lived together for the next several years.
In 1991, Khalil became a U.S. citizen. Armed with his new passport, he visited his relatives in Palestine for the first time in more than a decade. According to his brother, it was the first time he had left the United States since 1980. Five years later, Deek returned, intending to settle down in the Middle East. But because Khalil had overstayed his six-year exit visa and had become a U.S. citizen, the Israeli government refused to allow him to become a permanent resident of Palestine. Deek moved on to Jordan before settling in Pakistan, where by all accounts he opened a computer school, remarried and had two daughters.
Tawfiq Deek says he first heard about his brother's arrest on the radio on Dec. 14, 1999, while he was driving home from work. "I couldn't believe the accusations against my brother," he recalled. More than six months later, however, those accusations haven't stopped, and they offer a portrait of Deek that is starkly divergent from the hard-working family man described by his family.
As far as the accusation that Khalil had bomb-making materials on his computer, Tawfiq claims that the copy of Encyclopedia Jihad on Khalil's hard drive was a trap. "An informant in Jordan went to Peshawar and asked my brother to give him a copy," he said. "He took that one to the Jordanians, and that's what they used against him."
Tawfiq acknowledges that his gregarious brother may have come into contact with real terrorists. "By his nature, he is very generous," Tawfiq explained. "He used to live here in this building in Anaheim, and the door was always open. People would come here to discuss things and read the Koran. I think he was the same way in Pakistan. What pushed the authorities to arrest him was that they caught people in Libya who mentioned his name. His name was everywhere. This is why he got into trouble."
Indeed, accusations against Deek soon extended to his brother. On Jan. 26, Steven Emerson, a self-described investigator for Terrorism Newswire Inc., testified before Congress about the recent arrests in Pakistan and Jordan. In his testimony, he revealed that U.S. authorities hadn't just been digging into Khalil Deek's background. Emerson stated that "Tawfiq Deek has been involved with the Islamic Association for Palestine [IAP], described by former FBI official Oliver Revell as a 'front group' for Hamas." Hamas, as Emerson didn't have to tell his highly sensitive audience, is a militant Palestinian group long labeled a terrorist organization by U.S. authorities.
Tawfiq acknowledges that he used to be active in the IAP's Southern California chapter. But he claimed it is nothing more than a mainstream Palestinian exile group. "The goal is to promote a just solution to the Palestinian problem through the media and through brochures," he said. "All we did was have an event every October in Culver City. A chanting band would come, and everybody would get a doughnut. There would be speeches, and people would collect donations for orphanages in South Lebanon, the West Bank and Jordan—that kind of activity."
It's worth noting that Emerson is famous for appearing on live television in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing to blame the incident on Arab terrorists.
In fact, at a recent gala dinner held by the mainstream American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee, which featured an award presentation by radio personality Kasey Kasem, a string of speakers urged the audience to support the IAP. Yet many Arab-Americans' fear of being labeled pro-terrorist helps explain why the group's membership has apparently dwindled in recent years. "They used to have 1,000 people [at the meetings]," Tawfiq recalled. "Now they have maybe 200."
On New Year's Eve, shortly after Deek's arrest, a team of FBI investigators arrived at Tawfiq's apartment in Anaheim. The visit confirmed the suspicion that confronted not just Deek's relatives but seemingly the entire Arab-American religious community as well. In the weeks leading up to New Year's Eve, the U.S. government was intent on determining whether bin Laden's followers were plotting any terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
"A lot of people who live in my apartment building are from the Middle East," Tawfiq recalled. The FBI investigators working overtime on New Year's Eve had a question for everyone in the building, Tawfiq says: "'Are you aware of any Muslim group planning anything against the United States tonight?' That really shows the kind of millennium fever that led to my brother being arrested in Pakistan."
In the days following, Tawfiq says, he noticed officers tailing his car. "But that was the only contact between myself and any government agency that I'm aware of," he said.
Shortly after making that statement, however, he corrected himself. "Actually, I'm sure I'm under investigation, too," he said. "I feel that I'm being watched."
Shortly after his brother's arrest made headlines, Tawfiq hired Federico Sayre, a Newport Beach civil-rights attorney. Sayre's involvement with the case ended in February, when Deek was allowed to meet with his Jordanian lawyer and a representative of the International Red Cross. Sayre told the Weekly he is disturbed by the fact that a U.S. citizen can be arrested and tried by another country without any official protest by the U.S. State Department.
"My feeling is that this is an American citizen who has rights, and they should be respected," he argued.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is also troubled by some of the inconsistencies in the case against Khalil Deek.
"It doesn't seem that the Jordanian government or the U.S. has anything on him, or they would have charged him with a specific crime," Ayloush pointed out. "This guy is a U.S. citizen, and he has the right to know what he's being charged with and to have his government look after his interests. That hasn't happened."
While the U.S. government's refusal to comment hasn't helped, it also hasn't stopped Deek's relatives here from doing everything they can to clear his name. Tawfiq says he has bombarded the U.S. Embassy in Jordan with telephone calls about his brother's status and has asked Amnesty International to look into why he has yet to be officially charged with any crime. (A spokesperson said Amnesty is still looking into the case and thus had no comment.) Tawfiq says he also plans to contact Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) in an effort to help investigate the charges against his brother.
"They won't let him out on bail because he's still officially under investigation," he complained. "Six months have passed. Either send him to court if you have some evidence or send him back to his wife and family."
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